Thursday, September 22, 2011

Roundhouse Roundup: The Susana Martinez Defense

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
September 22, 2011

A word of caution for fellow motor-vehicle operators in Santa Fe caught by the unblinking eye of the hated Santa Fe Speed SUV:

The Susana Martinez defense doesn't work.

Let me explain. One night last June my car was captured by the robot paparazzi inside the sport utility vehicle on Don Gaspar Avenue.

I was going 36 mph, according to the finely tuned, computerized technology inside the SUV. The speed limit was 25, so I was 11 miles over the speed limit — the lowest speed that will get you a ticket from the speed SUV.

When I received notice in the mail of the violation, my teenage son declared that I was the victim of “an Orwellian scam.”

In my heart I agreed, even though I knew that Big Brother wouldn’t torture me with rats over this particular violation.

Instead of just paying the $100 fine, I opted to schedule a hearing, figuring that even if they didn’t dismiss the ticket, I’d probably get a break on the fine. That’s the way it’s worked in the past in Santa Fe since way before I was old enough to drive.

So where does the governor of New Mexico fit in? Early this month, around the same time I received notice for my hearing, there was a news item about Martinez’s driver being pulled over for speeding in Albuquerque. Her state police driver was going 48 mph in a 35 mph zone. That’s 13 miles over the speed limit.

The Associated Press reported, “That violation typically earns the driver a $95 ticket, but the governor’s driver got away with a verbal warning. Albuquerque police said the governor didn't receive preferential treatment.

“Every day citizens are stopped all around Albuquerque by APD officers and given verbal warnings,” a police spokesman told KOAT news. “It’s all the officers’ discretion. It happens all the time.”

Sounds reasonable.

Courtroom drama: So when I went to my hearing Wednesday morning, I brought up this little tale. If the governor’s driver could get a verbal warning for going 13 miles over the speed limit, shouldn’t others be afforded the same measure of justice?

I explained I wasn’t trying to make some cheap partisan point. Republican Martinez’s Democratic predecessor, Bill Richardson, frequently ordered his state police drivers to go at speeds way beyond 13 miles over the speed limit. Richardson’s drivers never had to pay any fines, either.

But my argument didn’t get very far. In fact, it got the same result as most of the Martinez administration’s arguments in cases argued before the state Supreme Court this year.

Sgt. T.J. Grundler, who attended the hearing for the city, wasn’t dismissive of the fairness argument. And he even mentioned a story by my colleague, Geoff Grammer. Grammer reported last month that 250 citations issued between January 2010 and June 2011 to government vehicles were either rejected or dismissed. The story said that only nine citations issued to drivers of government vehicles were actually paid.

But Grundler insisted that has changed since he became the SFPD officer assigned to the photo enforcement program. In fact, he said, his popularity among some of his fellow officers has suffered because he doesn't drop their tickets without good reason.

Hearing officer Jamison Barclay added that some legislators have been caught by the speed SUV and had to pay their fines. She didn't name names.

And so, she ruled I had to pay the whole $100.

I’m not whining. I was in the wrong.

I just wish I’d been pulled over by the cop who stopped the governor’s driver instead of being photographed by that stupid machine.